Syllabus outcome: Describe the interrelationship between the religious environment and the social and cultural context on which the literature draws.
Introduction: When I chose to review Utopia, I can honestly say that I had no idea of what I was letting myself in for. The book is so complex and there are so many conflicting ideas and interpretations that for a time I considered changing to an easier topic. However, Utopia is a fascinating book and gives an insight in European society just prior to the Reformation – obviously a time of major upheaval. My initial focus question was : How does Thomas More demonstrate in his book “Utopia” the hypocrisy of Christianity throughout the middle ages and how does he comment on possible solutions. However this question was much too broad and I felt that I was missing the whole point of the text and the insight it gives. So I modified the question to “How does Thomas More comment on his times through Utopia.” Commentaries on Utopia were fairly hard to come by as shown in my diary, though I did find some useful texts. The movie “a man for all seasons” also gave an interesting insight into the life of Thomas More. It must also be said that interviews with experts were practically impossible as literary critics are few and far between and Utopia is no longer a source of inspiration to many people. Overall Utopia was a fascinating topic for research and I enjoyed learning more about it.
All writers are influenced by the times in which they live and Thomas More was no exception. He wrote Utopia during a time of great upheaval and expectation throughout Europe. Furthermore, The Christian church was experiencing a period of great uncertainty and hypocrisy. Utopia was published in 1516; one year before Luther posted his 95 theses at Witenberg and the reformation officially began. Therefore, More wrote at a time when there was great poverty amongst the oppressed serfs. The Church was becoming increasingly corrupt, greedy rulers were waging wars throughout Europe to fulfill their own petty ambitions and the renaissance was causing a cultural uprising. Resultantly Utopia was a product of religious, social and cultural upheaval.
As Erasmus once claimed in The Praise of Folly (1511), “contemporary pontiffs instead of being the vicars of Christ, had become the deadliest enemies of the Church, striving ceaselessly after wealth, honours, and countless pleasures, even stooping to fight with fire and sword to preserve their privileges. ” When this work is juxtaposed with Luther’s 95 theses and especially More’s Utopia it becomes apparent that these key intellectuals were deeply dissatisfied with the church. Central to their ideas was the concept that faith alone, grace alone and Scripture alone justified a place in heaven without the purchasing of indulgences. The selling of indulgences was a practice whereby money was paid to guarantee salvation. In this way the Church amassed great wealth at the expense of the peasantry.
Thus religious greed compounded social difficulties and made poverty and crime an acute problem which is considered by More in Utopia. In book 1, he considers what is wrong with civilisation. Especially with regard to the severity of the penal code and the unequal distribution of wealth. More, through his imaginary character Hythloday claims that the death penalty for stealing is too harsh and that he would much prefer to seek remedies that would eliminate the causes of stealing. He further describes how, that in the social context of 16th Century Europe men were forced to steal out of desperation and starvation. He argues that “the system was fundamentally faulty…in which non-productive noblemen maintained non-productive flunkeys while forcing the common labourers to drudge in abject poverty. ”
Furthermore, More makes a comment on the legal system of the times through discussing the Utopian legal system in which the laws are such that the simplest meaning is always correct, such that there are no need for lawyers and there are no loop holes in the law. Hence people can defend themselves regardless of their intellectual capactity. More then comments on the legal system of the time through the imaginary character Hythloday. He claims ” in fact, when I consider any social system that prevails in the modern world, I can’t, so help me God, see it as anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of organising society. ”
More also makes mention of that “blessed nuisance money.” The Utopians despise money. “When money itself ceases to be useful, all greed for it is also entirely submerged; then what a heap of troubles is leveled down, what a crop of enormities is pulled up by the roots.” This contrasts sharply with the aristocrats love of money. More claimed through the imaginary character Hythloday
In a cultural context, More writes with an air of expectation as he believes that Europe is on the verge of a new age. “To men like More and Erasmus, humanism seemed to promise it…Humanism itself was a manifestation of something still larger: a general renovation of the human spirit and its creative impulses. ” The term humanist referred to those students of classical learning and literature, particularly to those who favoured a new curricular influence on ethics, history and poetry as studied in ancient Greece and Rome rather than the trivialities of the current scholarly system. More’s humanist affiliation can be seen from the fact that in many ways Utopia has a connection with Plato’s republic, for example in Book 1, More begins his book in the form of a debate just as Plato had done. Also, it meant that there was somewhat of a power struggle between the humanists and the conservative elites who wished to preserve the privileged position.
Essentially through Utopia, More describes both his optimism and cynicism as Europe moves towards a new age. By creating an imaginary Utopia he is satirising the corruption in the church and aristocracy and pushing for humanist reform. It would be easy to read Utopia as simply that, a perfect place and something to move toward. However there is much more to Utopia then this and when considered in the religious, social and cultural context of the times it is a call for individual repentance. It does not pretend to know the answers to problems and its attempts at solutions often seem ridiculous. Yet it does provide an insight into this major period of upheaval in Europe.
More’s epitaph reads “troublesome to heretics,” yet he wrote of “the community of property, the abolition of private property and the universal obligation to labour- which are today generally associated with socialism.” Furthermore, More “a devout catholic…advocated such things as Euthanasia, the marriage of priests, divorce by mutual consent on the grounds of incompatibility and religious toleration. ” Some literary critics claim that More is making a point that even the Utopians, despite advocating matters such as Euthanasia acted better towards each other than Europeans. Therefore More is commenting on the extent of European wickedness. Others claim that More had Utopia in mind as a positive ideal to work towards, though his epitaph would contradict this. More was confused by both the optimism and pessimism, the prosperity and poverty of the age. The contradictions in his writing demonstrate this.
Utopia is therefore a complex work to say the least. Whilst it tries to give a description of an ideal society it also satirising the corruption within European society. This genre has been used by other writers such as Orwell, Huxley and Atwood to comment on society in their own times using More’s subtle blend of insinuation and political satire. “That Utopia does not attempt a final solution of the problems of human society – for More was to wise to attempt the impossible – but it contains an appeal addressed to all of us, which allows of no refusal, that we should try to do each one his share to mend our own selves and ease the burden of our fellow-men, to improve man-kind and prepare for the world to come. ” Therefore, despite all the difficulties in interpreting Utopia, More is ultimately calling on European society to change their ways for the betterment of human-kind, and his principles on religious plurality and social welfare were forward thinking. Many of the problems he addresses still plague society today.